Erotica Readers & Writers Association
Home | Erotic Books | Authors Resources | Inside The Erotic Mind | Erotica Gallery
Adult Movies | Sex Toys | Erotic Music | Email Discussion List | Links

'09 Authors Insider Tips

Everything About Epublishing
by Angela James
Digital Publishing & Print
Common Myths of Epublishing
Ebook Formats and Devices

by Louisa Burton
Compelling Characters
Point of View, Part I
Point of View, Part II
Learning to Love Conflict
Story Structure
Keep ‘em Guessing
Keep it Simple
Keep Your Writing Real
The Importance of Pacing

Literary Streetwalker
by M. Christian
New World of Publishing
To Blog Or Not To Blog
Meeting & Making Friends
Thinking Beyond Sex
Selling Books
Walking the Line
e-book, e-publisher, e-fun
Still More E-book Fun

Shameless Self-Promotion
by Donna George Storey
Our Journey Begins
Pitches and Bios
Websites, Blogs & Readers
Publicists, Press Kits and...
Viva the Internet
Adventures in Cyberspace
Promoting In the Flesh
Make Your Own Movie
Bigger is Better
Looking Back, Planning Ahead

Two Girls Kissing
by Amie M. Evans
Questions to Ask Yourself...
Tough All Over

The Write Stuff
by Ashley Lister
Practice Makes Prefect
5 Books for Fiction Authors
Poetry In Motions
Six Serving Men
Ashley Lister is Anal
Stealing Ideas
Celebrating Poetry

2009 Smutters Lounge

Ashley Lister Submits
by Ashley Lister

Cooking Up A Storey
by Donna George Storey
A Year of Living Shamelessly
Adultery, Exhibitionism ...
John Updike Made Me Do It ...
Story Soup: Forbidden ...
Lessons from Amazon
Naked Lunches ...
Erotic Alchemy
Secrets of Seduction
Are You a “Real” Writer?
Don’t Fondle My Sentence

Cracking Foxy
with Robert Buckley
The Passionate Taphophile
Havens on Earth
A Knight Without Armor
Magic Carpet Rides
Getting Hammered
Keep It Quiet
Hang Around for a Spell

Get All Worked Up
with J.T. Benjamin
Worked Up About Why
Worked Up About Why, Part II
All Worked Up About Porn
The Catholic Church
Purity Movement
The National Crisis
The Future
About Homosexuality
Public Indiscretions

Pondering Porn
with Ann Regentin
Premature Ejaculation
Auctioning Off What?

Sex Is All Metaphors
by Jean Roberta
Who's Who Around the Table
Ritual Sex
Mixed Legacy
The Spectrum of Consent
Drawing the Line
Marriage without the Hype
The Distracting Smirk
Innocent Guns
Gardens of Earthly Delights

Provocative Interviews

Between the Lines
with Ashley Lister
Anneke Jacob
D L King
Kristina Lloyd
Lisabet Sarai
Mitzi Szereto
Portia Da Costa
Shanna Germain
Sommer Marsden
Susan DiPlacido

Guest Appearances

Marketing a Self-Published Novel
by Jeanne Ainslie


by Louisa Burton

Story Structure:
The Skeleton Beneath the Words


All stories—all of them—are supported by some sort of narrative framework, however minimal or experimental. Even if you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer who feels creatively hamstrung by the very idea of “Plot,” please know that the rambling, expressionist coming-of-age tome you’ve been grinding away on since college, if it’s really a story, consists of the two fundamental stages set forth by Aristotle in Poetics:

  1. Complication (the struggle against a central conflict)
  2. Unraveling, or Denouement (the resolution of that conflict)

 “Resolution” doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending all tied up with a bow. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “the point in a literary work at which the chief dramatic complication is worked out.” A resolution in fiction can be positive or negative—or even ambivalent. It could be a problem your protagonist knows he must continue to deal with, or simply learns to live with. But one way or another, by the end of the story, your reader should have the sense that things have sorted themselves out.

The conflict itself can be as subtle as familial ennui or as in-your-face as a conspiracy to assassinate the president. If there’s not some sort of problem or concern facing the protagonist of your story, some issue throwing a wrench into his life or preventing him from achieving a goal, then it’s not a story. In my article “Learning to Love Conflict,” I quoted Robert McKee’s “Law of Conflict” from his book Story, and it bears repeating: Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.... Conflict is to storytelling what sound is to music.

McKee calls conflict “the sound in the music” and “the soul of story.” I think of it as the bones beneath its skin. Through the centuries, authorities such as Gustav Freytag, Vladimir Propp, Joseph Campbell, Chris Vogler, and Robert McKee, among many others, have put their own spin on Aristotle’s two-stage construct, offering story structure templates comprised of any number of different acts, stages, turning points, and so forth—all of which boil down to struggling with and resolving one main conflict.

If you read a good amount of fiction—as, of course, you should if you intend to write it—much of what you learn in writing courses and articles like this is second nature. Some novelists, like Stephen King, have internalized the elements of fiction to the extent that they choose not to plot their stories in advance; King, in particular, disdains the whole idea. Others find it creatively freeing to have a structure on which to build, as long as that structure is elastic enough to allow the story to evolve in a natural, unforced way.

That notion of a story evolving naturally is an important one to bear in mind as you’re arranging and rearranging the fictional events you intend to play out. Aristotle again: Of all plots and actions, the episodic are the worst. I call a plot “episodic” in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probability or necessary sequence. The best stories aren’t comprised of a procession of disparate events, but, as in real life, a complex chain of cause and effect. Your characters make choices that produce effects, which in turn influence those characters to initiate other effects, and so on and so forth. Plotting this kind of character-driven fiction involves more than just arranging scenes in a pre-determined sequence. If there’s an event you really, really want to play out in your novel, you’ve got to make sure the pertinent character has the motivation to bring about that event in a plausible way. Likewise, if you change some important aspect of a character’s personality, backstory, goal, or whatever, that change will—or should—be reflected in the events of your story.

In defining his terms, Aristotle writes: By the Complication I mean all that extends from the beginning of the action to the part which marks the turning point to good or bad fortune. The Unraveling is that which extends from the beginning of the change to the end. This model, although elegant in its simplicity, is for that very reason of limited practical value to writers attempting to plot a novel, hence the more elaborate variations that have been offered up over the years. Regardless of how intuitive story structure might be to you, it’s never a bad idea to see it laid out in black and white, if only to corroborate your instincts. What follows is the classic five-stage story template, which I believe best serves the needs of novelists (as opposed to dramatists):

1. The Inciting Incident

The opening of your story is where you engage your reader for the long haul, which is why novelists tend to spend so much time crafting and re-crafting that all-important first chapter. Points to consider:

Expunge the word “setup” from your literary vocabulary. Start your novel just before, during, or after the change that launches the story, and open with the actual events of your story, ideally in the form of action and dialogue. Save the lengthy narrative passages and backstory to salt in later.

Hook your reader with your first paragraph, ideally with your first sentence. It doesn’t have to be an exceptionally dramatic sentence, just something that tickles your reader’s mind, creates a kind of an itch, so that he or she has to keep on reading in the hope of getting it scratched. This advice applies regardless of the genre you’re writing in:

“‘I see,’ said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window.” –Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” –Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“Daisy Devereaux had forgotten her bridegroom’s name.” –Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Kiss an Angel

“One evening, it was toward the end of October, Harry Arno said to the woman he’d been seeing on and off for the past few years, ‘I’ve made a decision. I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before in my life.’” –Elmore Leonard, Pronto

If there can be one single most important base to cover at the beginning of your story, it would be to establish empathy with your protagonist. Make your reader crawl into his or her skin, feel that person’s feelings. Do this not by making that character a too-good-to-be-true, larger than life hero (even if you’re writing heroic fiction), but by painting him as real and vulnerable, by giving him universal human emotions that we all can relate to. Make your reader feel deeply for this person, let us know his goal—even if it’s just to maintain the status quo of his ordinary life—and then put that goal in jeopardy. This will establish the conflict at the core of your story.

2. Complications

Now begins a series of turning points wherein your protagonist addresses the conflict as it deepens and escalates. At the beginning of this main, middle part of your story, your protagonist recognizes the existence of this conflict and sets about trying to tackle it, whether fervently or grudgingly, as with the classic, much-beloved reluctant hero.

Show the bomb ticking, create a sense of urgency, worsen the odds. Your protagonist takes action to deal with the problems facing him, but the situation only worsens. Resist the temptation to make things worse by solving one conflict and introducing another. Shifting conflicts are the kiss of death. There’s always one central conflict, either internal or external, that forms the backbone of the story from beginning to end.

Not all of your protagonist’s strategies for dealing with this problem will necessarily work. In fact, he may be faced with a plot reversal, wherein circumstances spin everything around and he’s back where he started, or worse.

As the stakes are raised—and the higher the stakes, the more exciting the story, whether it’s action-adventure or a quiet family tale—and your protagonist accepts responsibility for resolving the conflict, he might experience fundamental changes. Consider the character arcs of Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia and Cary Grant’s Devlin in Hitchcock’s Notorious, outlined below.

3. Crisis

Your protagonist decides to take a particular course of action to resolve his problem. This is his most momentous decision during the story. It could involve an epiphany, an emotional moment of truth, the acceptance of something that’s difficult to acknowledge, the willingness to make a personal sacrifice, or even to risk his own death.

This all-important crisis decision might be acted on immediately, or it might be followed by more complications and/or plot twists before your story reaches the...

4. Climax

This is where your protagonist acts upon his crisis decision, bringing his struggle with the conflict to a close.

5. Resolution

As soon as the climax is resolved, the story per se is over, but you still need to bring the curtain down for your reader. Here is where you demonstrate the spread of effects and wrap up your plotlines, ideally in reverse order of importance if you have subplots to wrap up, too. In other words, if you’ve written a romantic suspense novel that’s meant to go on the mystery and suspense shelf, you would try to wrap up the romance first, because the primary thread is the suspense. If it’s destined for the romance section, wrap up the suspense first and the love story last. As a practical matter, this isn’t always possible, but it’s something to aim for.

The subplot, if you have one, shouldn’t be an entirely independent story unrelated to the main plot, but rather an offshoot of it. Its purpose is to strengthen, deepen, and enhance the main plot. Weave it through from beginning to end and make sure it conforms to the same sort of structure as the main plot, i.e. that it has a conflict, crisis, climax, etc.

To illustrate this classic five-stage structure, I’ve deconstructed the plot of Hitchcock’s Notorious. If this film is unfamiliar to you, rent it at your earliest opportunity, not for teaching purposes, but simply for the pleasure of watching this brilliant romantic suspense story unfold.

Story Structure of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious

Inciting incident:

The movie opens with the trial of Alicia Huberman’s Nazi father. That night, government agent T.R. Devlin crashes a party at Alicia’s house and convinces her to act as a spy for Uncle Sam.


For Dev: He finds out that Alicia’s job is to go to Buenos Aires, “land” the Nazi Alex, who was once in love with her, find out what’s going on in his house and report back. Having fallen for her, Dev secretly hopes she won’t do it, but can’t bring himself to ask her not to; he wants her to refuse on her own.

For Alicia: Dev insults her, doesn’t defend her to his superiors, doesn’t seem to love her, won’t ask her not to take the job. He sees her as a hard-drinking, promiscuous party girl and thinks she’s incapable of changing. She takes job partly out of spite.

Dev and Alicia go to Buenos Aires, with him posing as a friend of hers. They stage a “chance” meeting with Alex, whom she leads on; he’s still attract­ed to her.

At a dinner party in Alex’s home, with Alex’s scary Nazi mom in attendance, the scientist Emil inadver­tently draws Alicia’s notice to the peculiarity with the wine bottle. Alex’s pals kill Emil for his indiscre­tion.

At the racetrack, Alicia reveals to an irate Dev that she has slept with Alex. He rebukes her, saying she hasn’t changed, and that she should have refused the job. But later, he defends her character to his superiors.

Alicia agrees to marry Alex for the sake of the mission. On returning from the honeymoon, she unsuccessfully tries to get the key to the wine cellar. Dev tells her to throw a party and invite him, although Alex is jealous of him, and he’ll investi­gate then.

Alicia steals the key to the cellar from Alex and passes it to Dev at the party. They discover wine bottles filled with heavy metal in the cellar. Alex comes to get some wine and sees them kissing. Alicia tells Alex that Dev made a drunken pass; they send him away. Later, Alex tries to get into the wine cellar, only to discover he doesn’t have that key. He suspects something.

After she returns the key to his ring, Alex realizes his wife is an American agent and is worried that his Nazi cohorts will kill him for his lack of judgment, as they did Emil. His mother says, “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidi­ty.”

Mom cooks up plot to poison Alicia, whom Alex now despises.

Dev’s boss tells Alicia that Dev has asked for a transfer and will leave Buenos Aires in a week. “It’s all routine now.”

Ill from the poison, she meets with Dev, who assumes she’s drunk; despairing at his impending departure, she lets him think she is.

At home, Alicia realizes she’s being poisoned, faints, and is taken to her room; Alex has the phone disconnected. Very dire situation, both in terms of internal and external conflict.

She misses a rendezvous with Dev, who wonders about it.


Dev rethinks things; maybe Alicia wasn’t drunk; maybe she was ill. He decides to go to Alex’s house and check up on her.


At Alex’s house, Dev sneaks upstairs to Alicia’s room and discovers she’s being poisoned. They kiss; he declares his love and sets about rescuing her.


Dev escorts Alicia from the house, leaving Alex and his mother for the cohorts to deal with, essentially throwing them to the wolves.

The End

Really. Rent it. You won’t be sorry.

Louisa Burton
July 2009

If you have any comments or insights to share about this column, please send an email to Louisa Burton

Read more of Louisa Burton's FictionCraft in ERWA 2009 Archive.

"FictionCraft" © 2009 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

About the Author: Louisa Burton is a multipublished author of some two dozen erotica, romance, and mystery novels for Bantam, Berkley, Signet, NAL, Harlequin, and St. Martin’s. A former publishing professional who is in love with the sound of her own voice, she has also taught numerous fiction writing courses and workshops. Way too much info about her current project, the Hidden Grotto series of erotic fantasy, is available at

  E-mail this page

Search ERWA Website:

Copyright 1996 and on, Erotica Readers Association, Inc.
All Rights Reserved World Wide. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or
medium without express written permission is prohibited.

'09 Movie Reviews

Blame It On Savanna
Review by Byrdman

Cry Wolf
Review by Spooky

Review by Spooky

Heaven or Hell
Review by Oranje

House of Wicked
Review by Diesel

The Office: An XXX Parody
Review by Spooky

This Ain't The Partridge Family
Review by Spooky

'09 Book Reviews


A Slip of the Lip (ebook)
Review by Jean Roberta

Best Women's Erotica '09
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Bottoms Up
Review by Ashley Lister

Enchanted Again
Review by Victoria Blisse

Review by Kathleen Bradean

Girls on Top
Review by Ashley Lister

In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed
Review by Ashley Lister

Libidacoria (Poetry)
Review by Ashley Lister

Licks & Promises
Review by Ashley Lister

Like a Thorn (ebook)
Review by Lisabet Sarai

The Mile High Club
Review by Ashley Lister

Nexus Confessions: Vol 5
Review by Victoria Blisse

Nexus Confessions 6
Review by Victoria Blisse

Oysters & Chocolate
Review by Kristina Wright

Playing with Fire
Review by Ashley Lister

Sexy Little Numbers Vol 1
Review by Ashley Lister

Up for Grabs
Review by Lisabet Sarai


A 21st Century Courtesan
Review by Donna G. Storey

The Ages of Lulu
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Amanda’s Young Men
Review by Kristina Wright

As She's Told
Review by Ashley Lister

Bedding Down
Review by Victoria Blisse

Review by Ashley Lister

Brushes & Painted Dolls
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Cassandras Chateau
Review by Ashley Lister

The Edge of Impropriety
Review by Kristina Wright

Review by Kathleen Bradean

Free Pass
Review by Ashley Lister

The Gift of Shame
Review by Victoria Blisse

Kiss It Better
Review by Ashley Lister

The Melinoe Project
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Mortal Engines & The ...
Review by Ashley Lister

The New Rakes
Review by Ashley Lister

Ninety Days of Genevieve
Review by Victoria Blisse

Obsession: An Erotic Tale
Review by Kristina Wright

Sarah's Education
Review by Ashley Lister

Seduce Me
Review by Lisabet Sarai

Lesbian Erotica

Lesbian Cowboys
Review by Kathleen Bradean

Night's Kiss
Review by Jean Roberta

Where the Girls Are
Review by Jean Roberta

Gay Erotica

Animal Attraction 2
Review by Kathleen Bradean

Boys in Heat
Review by Vincent Diamond

Review by Lisabet Sarai

The Low Road
Review by Jean Roberta

Personal Demons
Review by Jean Roberta

Ready to Serve
Review by Vincent Diamond

The Secret Tunnel
Review by Kathleen Bradean

Review by Kathleen Bradean

Review by Vincent Diamond


Best Sex Writing '09
Review by Kristina Wright

The Big Penis Book
Review by Rob Hardy

Erotic Encounters
Review by Rob Hardy

The Forbidden Apple
Review by Rob Hardy

Hollywood’s Censor
Review by Rob Hardy

Lady in Red
Review by Rob Hardy

Licentious Gotham: Erotic...
Review by Rob Hardy

Live Nude Elf
Review by Rob Hardy

Live Nude Girl
Review by Rob Hardy

The Other Side of Desire
Review by Rob Hardy

Scripts 4 Play
Review by Ashley Lister